"Country Strong" is the latest and, in many ways, the least impressive entrant in the achy-breaky sweepstakes. It stars Gwyneth Paltrow as superstar Kelly Canter, a Faith Hill-style singer whom we first encounter drying out in rehab. Paltrow doesn't make many movies these days, so the question is: Why this one?
The answer is obvious. This is an Oscar-size role she can really sink her teeth into. The bigness of the role, however, doesn't match its middling execution. Paltrow isn't bad – she even does her own singing – but writer-director Shana Feste hasn't done much to rehabilitate a very tired conception. (As an example of how to do it right, check out "Nashville," with Ronee Blakley's classic performance as a rehabbed wreck of a star, or "Payday," with Rip Torn.)
It's not enough to see a legend at the end of her tether. We have to see why she was a legend to begin with. Alas, this only happens in Kelly's very first scene. Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund), a talented singer-songwriter who also works at the rehab facility, plays her a new song on his guitar. She smiles moonily at him – it turns out they are also lovers – and then on the spot composes an improved lyric. Instantly we see how good she is and how much this music still means to her.
Soon she is prematurely plucked from rehab by her husband-manager James (country star Tim McGraw, who does no singing in the film). With Beau accompanying her on her comeback tour as a combination opening act and traveling companion, James holds out the hope that Kelly can revive her career and deep-six her demons. He must not have seen very many country movies over the years.
Along for the ride is beauty- queen-turned-singer Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester), another opener for Kelly and a potential love mate for Beau. She has a kewpie doll concupiscence that is supposed to camouflage her steely, star-in-the-making resolve. The camouflage is laid on pretty thick, though, because I failed to see the artist underneath. Since Feste doesn't go for the usual "All About Eve" vibe here – the gaga Chiles never seeks to undermine her idol – there isn't much for Meester to do except look, as the occasion calls for it, either charmingly bereft or charmingly charming.
Beau, meanwhile, is busy carrying on with Kelly right under her husband's nose. It's potentially interesting that James, in the cause of her career and his livelihood, would condone, however uncomfortably, his wife's dalliances. But Feste doesn't credibly stage-manage the ménage. James may be a fool in love (or maybe just a fool), but there are far too many scenes where he looks poleaxed by Kelly's and Beau's blatant indiscretions.
Maybe things would have perked up if James had been given more of an opportunity to drop his baleful blahness. Or if Beau had a chance to be more than a studly-saintly helpmate with a good pair of lungs. Feste is quoted in the press notes as saying: "I love that you get these very masculine men singing about getting left alone and having their hearts broken; they become very vulnerable in their lyrics and write about things most men don't really talk about." Well, Beau is vulnerable, all right. Between Kelly and him, there's enough vulnerability to power a thermonuclear reactor.
Perhaps the most misguided moment in the movie comes near the end, when Kelly, tottering to glory, knocks 'em dead at a concert in Dallas. It's believable, even essential, that she revives herself in this way, but the concert itself is such a glitzy piece of Vegas-style claptrap that you wonder what Feste was thinking.
If she was trying to demonstrate how far from her down-home roots Kelly has traveled, then why the note of triumphalism? And if Feste actually believes that this show is country nirvana, she has no business making a country movie. Grade: C- (Rated PG-13 for thematic elements involving alcohol abuse and some sexual content.)